INFORMATION ABSORPTION

A look at how players absorb information from their games, and how controlling the flow of that information can alter the gameplay experience.

Information Absorption
a game design article by that guy Brickroad

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If you could step back and look at the course of a video game all at once, what you'd see is a sequence of actions. The player takes one action, then another, and another, and a couple thousand more, until she finally takes the final action and wins the game. This series of actions, for example, will get you through World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros.:

  1. Jump on the Goomba to kill it.
    Hit the ? Block and take your Mushroom.
    Hop over a few pipes. Go down the fourth one to find a Coin Room.
    Go through the pipe to exit the Coin Room.
    Avoid the two Goombas and climb the stairs.
    Jump at the flagpole. For justice.


For justice.



It's one thing, of course, to look at an existing game and identify the sequence of actions required to reach the end. It's another to start from a blank slate and write the sequence of actions which will in turn become a completed game. Specifically, the player has to know what actions are possible at any given time, or they won't know what the Next Action in the sequence is. Imagine a player new to Super Mario Bros. who has no idea the game features a jump button. That player will be irretrievably stuck on the very first action in the game, and unable to advance. The key, then, is to take a look at what the game is telling the player, and how that information is being absorbed. In this case the game is giving the player two ways to discover how to jump:

  1. The game's instruction manual clearly outlines the "jump" action.
    Even if it didn't, the controller only has a few buttons. Some simple experimentation will reveal the "jump" action pretty quickly.


In this article we're going to examine the spaces in between a game's sequence of actions, where the player is given information on how to advance. How does the player know what the Next Action is? If the player doesn't know, how is she expected to discover it? And more importantly, how do we know whether those expectations are fair?

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The Basic Action

The first thing we have to consider is what a player will do in a complete information vaccuum. The obvious answer, of course, is "give up"; a player with absolutely no direction and no idea on how to continue can't advance in the game. That happens on a longer timeline, though; in the short term she'll probably be willing to go through the actions she knows she has, just to see if any of them work. Knowing this we can define a Basic Action, then: the player will attempt to explore the game world.

If the player enters a room with a locked door and a switch, the game doesn't need to point out in bright neon letters "PRESS THE SWITCH TO OPEN THE DOOR". The player is going to try that, simply by virtue of being in that situation situation; she'll step on the switch to see if it opens the door. If it doesn't, the next course of action is to discover why. Perhaps the switch did something else? Perhaps the switch opened the door, but closed it again once she stepped off? Perhaps the switch does open the door, but there's no power running to it? The player can apply the Basic Action to each of these situations. If there's an unexplored room, the player will enter it. If there's an unopened box, the player will try to open it. If there's an NPC in a room, the player will try to speak with him. If there's a flashing dot on the world map and the player has no other leads, she will attempt to reach it.

"Argh! Why won't this stupid door open!?"



The latitude granted by the Basic Action is not infinite. Once the player is blocked in all directions and has no other obvious avenues of experimentation she is effectively stuck. What happens next is determined by the type of game she's playing and what her recourse might be. If she's playing a puzzle-heavy game with lots of secrets, she might be willing to go back and re-apply the Basic Action to everything she's already covered, looking for something she missed. If not, she'll either give up or head to the walkthrough looking for help.

Because most RPGMaker games aren't designed to be puzzle-heavy, typically don't have walkthroughs and cost nothing for the player to simply quit and delete, the concept of presenting the Next Action in an intuitive way is pretty important if we want people to keep playing. Let's look at how to do that.

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Getting Stuck Is No Fun!
The first school of thought on the issue is that the player should always know what the Next Action is. The game should state, very clearly, what the player needs to do at any given time in order to advance in the game, or at least clearly outline what actions are possible. This way the player is never stuck and can advance at her own pace. Most RPGs are set up like this. First you have an introduction segment, which clearly points you to where the first gameplay segment can be found. Upon completing that the story picks up again and either drops you in or points you towards to next gameplay segment. The cycle of Story/Gameplay/Story/Gameplay repeats until the player kills the last boss (the final gameplay segment) and is rewarded with the ending (the final story segment).

Choo choo! All aboard the Plot Train!



There's nothing wrong with this setup. It's been the go-to style for RPGs since at least Final Fantasy IV on the SNES, and in many ways is best suited to the types of linear stories RPGs like to tell. Presenting the Next Action is as easily as having a forced cutscene telling the player to Go Here, Do This, for This Reason.

There are good ways and bad ways to go about this. If the king tells the hero to head to a nearby cave and defeat a monster, but the player accidentally or purposely skips through all the dialogue, you're back to square one. Or, maybe the player read the dialogue but then saved her game and didn't pick it back up for another three months. In either case the player is left with nothing but the Basic Action at her disposal.

The cure for this is to offer a reminder on what the Next Action is. This reminder should be something easily discoverable within the scope of the Basic Action, so a player who is actively looking for the Next Action will easily discover it. A game with a map screen can offer an obvious, glowing waypoint showing where the Next Action takes place. An RPG can have a relevant NPC summarize the original "Go Here, Do This, for This Reason" speech again. A more nonlinear adventure game might come with a Quest Log with the player's current objective outlined clearly at the top.

The lesson here is to always make sure the player can discover or re-discover what their Next Action is by applying the Basic Action to the game world. If the goal is to create a linear experience where the player is never stuck, the game needs to make some concessions to ensure the player can always move forward.

Another method is to remove the necessity of the Basic Action entirely. Some games are structured in such a way that each story sequence whisks the player off to the next gameplay segment automatically. Others are structured so that the game world exists as a virtual straight line; the player can either move forward or backward, and the direction she's heading is always obvious. Others still take it a step further and close off old areas, forcing the player forward without any way to backtrack. The obvious benefit here is that it's impossible for the player to ever get stuck; all she has to do is point her character forward and get moving. The downside is that many players find this style to be too restrictive and stifling, since you lose the concept of exploration altogether. Used sparingly, though, this method can create suspense or a sense of urgency.

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Getting Stuck Is Fun, After All!

In reality, most players like to be stuck at least a little bit. A game that is too obvious with its event sequence isn't a game so much as a shopping checklist. Some players enjoy a sense of discovery. (What's that place I need to get to, and how do I get there?) Others enjoy a sense of challenge. (What do I have to do to overcome this monster which keeps killing me?) Others appreciate both. In order to achieve either, though, a game has to hide some of the information from the player. The entrance to the dungeon the player was sent to has caved in, forcing her to find a secret entrance. The player encounters an obstacle she can't overcome without some piece of equipment, which is hidden in a non-obvious location. The boss can only be damaged if the player strikes its weak point, which is only discovered through using different types of attacks.

Nonetheless, the game should still provide information on what or where the Next Action is. The main difference will be how the information is presented; rather than provide some unskippable exposition or a bright, flashing waypoint, the player will have to discover this information on her own. We already know the player is running around applying the Basic Action. The game can meet her halfway by providing Feedback.

Feedback is indirect information the player is picking up from the game world, usually in response to exploration. If she steps into a dungeon and the monsters are far, far too powerful for her the game (assuming it's balanced proplery) is clearly saying "You shouldn't be in this dungeon yet." If instead of opening a door makes a click-clicking sound, that door is saying "I am locked." If she attacks a monster and deals only 1 damage, that monster is saying "I am resistant to regular attacks."

In each of these three cases, proper feedback has taught the player something. The first player has learned to exit that dungeon and take her adventuring elsewhere. The second player has learned to begin searching for a way to unlock the door. The third has learned to use magic attacks against that type of monster. Each of these players has advanced in the game.

Continuous damage is Metroid-speak for "get the hell out of here, quickly!"



Without feedback, the player's exploration yeilds nothing of value to learn from. If instead of super-powerful monsters, the first player encounters monsters of her power level, the player may advance into the wrong area and end up far away from the plot with no idea just how lost she is. If instead of making a clicking sound the second player's door makes no sound at all, she has no indication the door will open for her nor any idea of what could possibly open it. If instead of doing small amounts of damage to a monster that has average HP the third player deals average damage to a monster with huge amounts of HP, the player has no real indication that she should be using magic against that monster. The same situations, minus only the feedback, now yeild a player who is lost, another who is stuck and a third who is hacking away endlessly at really boring monsters. Certainly not ideal!

Worse than no feedback, though, is Negative Feedback. This happens when the game presents information to a player that not only leads her away from the Next Action, but actually leads her to believe the Next Action is impossible.

Imagine the dungeon with the way-too-strong monsters is the Next Action for our first player. The dungeon is very clearly telling the player "You shouldn't be in this dungeon yet." The real Next Action here is "level up until you can fight the monsters in that dungeon", but the player has no way of knowing that. If every door in the game makes a "clicky-click" sound when examined, whether they eventually open or not, the feedback given our second player isn't "I am locked" but "You cannot open me." The player now believes this closed door is a dead-end, and has no reason to look for a way through it. She's stuck until she checks a walkthrough or someone tells her what to do, at which point she replies, "That was stupid."

Negative feedback is usually the result of a game's author not really examining the messages the game is giving. When designing the game world, always keep the player's Basic Action in mind and what the world's responses will be, intentional or otherwise. Positive feedback, therefore, is the result of deliberately placing oneself in the game world and thinking of ways to respond to the player's exploration by pointing them towards their Next Action.

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Wait, How Stuck Is Too Stuck?

Believe it or not, some players love to be stuck so much that there is an entire genre of games that cater specifically to them: point-and-click adventure games. Games such as Myst and Riven are the cornerstones here, and while these games do have a sequence of actions that must be completed. it's virtually never clear what the player's Next Action should be at any given time. Indeed, exploring the world and piecing the clues together are the heart and soul of adventure games! This style of game is not very popular, though, since by their very nature the player spends the majority of their playtime completely stuck. Many players never finish such games without a walkthrough.

A child's toy, or crucial gameplay information?



That's one side of the bell curve. On the other are games that are so simple that the Next Action is so painfully obvious that the player is completely unable to ever deviate from the established sequence of events. Take for example Frogger, where the Next Action is always to Hop Forward. If you Hop Forward enough, and in the right places, your frog reaches the end of the level and you start over with a new frog whose job is also to Hop Forward. After you've done this with a certain amount of frogs the game gets slightly harder and you repeat the process. You do this endlessly until you either lose all your frogs or witness the heat death of the universe.

Most games fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The best games do so consistently. As in, the game sets a standard for how much information it's going to obfuscate early on, and then sticks to that standard. Over time the player learns how much exploration, experimentation and trial-and-error to put up with before they decide they're hopelessly stuck.

Let's turn to Zelda for our example this time. In the original Legend of Zelda the Next Action was sometimes hidden under a tree in the game world which the hero could burn down. Not all trees were burnable, and it was impossible to tell the difference between a burnable tree and a regular tree. Furthermore, there was often no information that the hero was looking for something under a tree in the first place, let alone which tree to look under. As a result, players of Legend of Zelda spent a lot of time burning trees just to see what would happen. Legend of Zelda has a very high threshhold for how much of the Basic Action needs to be applied before the game will respond. The game provides so little information that the player must explore every possibility on her own.

A decade passed and Zelda went 3D with Ocarina of Time. This game is very dialogue-heavy, with a full in-game map that came equipped with waypoints and very clear indicators of what section of the world the player should be exploring at any given time. Puzzles were designed to be solvable with a good mix of intuition or elbow grease: shoot an arrow at the target on the wall, aim a ray of light at a mirror, or place a bomb next to the crack in the mountainside. If the player ever became lost or stuck she could usually examine her maps to see where she hadn't been yet, and in searching for a way into those areas would eventually find the Next Action. The threshhold for how much Basic Action is required in Ocarina of Time is much lower. The game provides so much information and feedback that it's easy to tell the difference between a puzzle that needs to be solved and a red herring.

Imagine the outrage if Ocarina of Time had hidden an important item underneath a burnable tree, with absolutely no information that some trees were burnable, that that tree was burnable or that the player needs the item hidden underneath a tree to begin with. The player will never think to try and burn a tree because the action is so clearly impossible. Besides, the game had provided such good information up to this point that the player is going to think she missed something, not that she has to do something totally random. The puzzle that worked in the original game simply doesn't fit in the modern one, even though both styles work fine in context.

Setting the tone for how much the player is going to have to work to reach each Next Action and being consistent enough with it that the player never feels stuck is a fine line to walk. Remember when you bred a golden chocobo all by yourself in Final Fantasy VII? No? That's because the actions required to do it were so obtuse and underclued compared to the rest of the game that the set of people who would enjoy working out how to breed a golden chocobo and the set of people who enjoy the rest of FF7 has almost no overlap. Everyone just got their golden chocobo from GameFAQs, and the people who wrote the FAQs got theirs from the official strategy guide. It is possible to complete the breeding process on your own just going on the sparse information provided by the game, but the rest of the game doesn't require that level of attention and so most players simply decided the logic was impenetrable, and gave up.

To get the next clue, just wait some arbitrary amount of time and bring a million gil. How could it be clearer?



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Information Overload! Bottom-line It, Brickroad!

Understand that every piece of your game is feeding information to the player, from the graphics to the dialogue to the response she gets from clicking on things in the game world. Understand, too, that this information and feedback is the only thing the player has to go on when deciding what actions are worth trying and what aren't. Finally, understand that the player will eventually become accustomed to a certain level of information, and that maintaining that level throughout the game is a great way to make the project feel consistent.

Try listing the sequence of actions your player must take to get from Point A to Point B in your game, and then determine how she can logically deduce each step given what she's seen before. Remember to provide information in such a way that a player can always find it again in case she needs it, and remember to put clues for unobvious actions in places the player can hope to find them. Above all, make sure your game isn't sending messages you don't want to send. It's easy to get a player to learn a new trick. It's a lot harder to get her to un-learn it. Make sure you're teaching the right lessons.

Posts

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Beautiful article, probably the most simplest part of videogames you can talk about. But many people overlook this.
Great article, and I like how you referred to the player as a "she" throughout the entire article. :)
well yeah obviously all serious gamers are sexyladies

oh for this to be true.. :(
halibabica
RMN's Official Reviewmonger
11399
I was thinking of writing something like this myself! You did a way better job with it, though. Good work!
dragonheartman
Developer, Starless Umbra / Heroes of Umbra
2694
Another great article by brickroad. Nice job!

PS, great captions for the images too.
"A more nonlinear adventure game might come with a Quest Log with the player's current objective outlined clearly at the top."

Personally, my own opinion is that all RPGs should have a Quest Log, regardless of their linearity, for the reasons you laid out. There's a lot of games that I'd -love- to get around to beating, but because I tend to have to put them aside for a few days/weeks/months to switch to something else, I can no longer remember what I need to do next, and the game has no real way of telling me.
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